During the past couple of years, we have witnessed a succession of building collapses across the country, stretching from rural Cao Bang to the large metropolitans of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, putting the lives of many men, women, and children at risk. And it does not end there: fire safety risks continually loom over building tenants as builders intentionally flout fire safety codes. These problems speak to some deep-seated problems in the management of structural soundness and safety in Vietnamese buildings.

One of the most extensively covered events last year in the news was the collapse of a house on Cua Bac Street, Hanoi, which occurred in August 2016 and left two dead. Although the direct cause was revealed to be on the part of their next-door neighbours (the construction work being done next door at the time broke the plumbing system of the house in question, affecting its foundation), the investigation unearthed some concerning information, including the discovery that the house had virtually no foundation at all, due to its construction in the 1980s. This incident was not entirely unwarned: residents and officials alike have been warned of the alarming levels of dilapidation occurring in old houses and apartment blocks; however, very few have been renovated or rebuilt.

That is not all residents have to fear: fire incidents have also come to be a big threat looming over tenants. It seems that every other week, we are seeing yet another house or building caught on fire caused by a seemingly small mistake, leaving behind big losses of life and property. The unpredictability of how fire can occur is exacerbated by unscrupulous builders. Roy, an expatriate living in Ho Chi Minh City, remarks in an editorial written for Tuoi Tre News: “Any legitimate inspection of these structures would never allow occupancy,” mentioning a few dangerous measures taken by developers, such as ignoring electrical codes, installing exit doors that do not meet safety standards, etc.

The collusion between developers and authorities only makes things worse: in the same op-ed, Roy recounts a particular inspection which he accompanied: “We walked about 20 meters into a hallway and I had already pointed out several violations. The police and management quickly decided I would not be an asset to the inspection and I was taken away by the supervisor.” This is not an isolated incident, but a representative of a systemic issue: on consulting a Vietnamese attorney about suing contractors and management, the attorney advised that such a case could never be won in a Vietnam court.

It is not far-fetched to say that the issues of structural soundness and safety in housing and public accommodations affect everyone; you never know whether you might become a victim in a house fire or a person crushed by the rubble from a collapse. It is clear that the current situation requires much more effective enforcement of building codes, as well as a thorough inspection of vulnerable buildings, so as to minimise the risk of another incident.

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